The new debut novel Wahala author Nikki May caught my attention with her amazing cover design and online buzz. A book that looks good and reads well is a good catch. I was captivated by the girl drama between three thirty five British Nigerian women living in London.
Ronke, Boo and Simi became close friends at university, bonding over their mixed-race heritage (white mothers, Nigerian fathers). They’ve been each other’s support system through smart friends, medical school, college dropouts, finding love, and parenting. Ronke is a dentist. She adores her Nigerian heritage, is still very close to her aunt, misses her father, dates Nigerian men and dreams of marriage and domestic bliss. But she can’t make her friend Keidoi known for passing her on dates and group plans—commit. Boo and Simi dislike Kayoda, though Ronke is blind to his own faults. Boo is basically living Ronke’s dream life. She is happily (or not) married to a French man, Didier, and has a lovely baby girl, Sophie (who adores Aunt Ronka), and has a great job. Simi is in a long distance relationship with Martin. Struggling with impostor syndrome at work and secrets at home, she’s on the pill while Martin thinks they’re trying to have a baby. Three is good company, but four is wahala (Yoruba for trouble).
Wahala begins when rich girl Isobel, Simi’s childhood friend, infiltrates a tight-knit group. She has bright fabrics, jokes, big money, lunchtime stares, shopping sprees, bright outfits and boundless energy. She becomes a friend when the girl group starts showing cracks, texting Boo, encouraging her flirtatious secret life with her boss, or listening to Simi’s confession. A strong friendship of seventeen years crumbles in Isobel’s presence. She attracts gossip, scandals and destruction. Boo is now playing cards while shopping and suspects that Ronke is jealous of her perfect family. Lovely Ronke asks if her friends are as supportive of her as she is of them. Simi is torn between a new job and relationship transparency. Wahala introduces us to the lives of these women in great detail – Ronke is mistaken for an assistant in his dental practice, at Simi’s workplace she is implemented in projects that create “urban” tokenistic vibes, Boo Boss imagines her and also calls her an Afro-exotic.
I loved Wahala for not being what Western audiences expect from a POC book. There are no morals to be learned, no lessons of trauma that make the lives of non-white characters palatable to white audiences, and no one-dimensional poverty. Women inside Wahala are ambitious and financially stable. They live their lives to the fullest and have each other’s backs. They are driven, make bad decisions and fight well. But the novel is not without stereotypes. The white men, Martin and Didier, are supportive and compassionate towards their wives, while the Nigerian men are unstable, unreliable and often abandon their families. The ending was too abrupt, but it also shook me out of my comfy chair screaming “What?”. The novel also fell short of the familiar type, where at the end you wonder why the ‘secret’ – which keeps the plot going – was kept a secret? Many themes such as internalized racism were touched upon but not explored in depth. As much as I loved the three girls, Isobel remains a caricature of evil energy for plot development and nothing more. I also wished we could have seen more of some of the characters instead of being pushed into a quick ending.
But to be honest, by the end of the reading I was thoroughly entertained by the group of girls. I loved the snappy dialogues, the women’s problems (both domestic and professional), the messy situations, the cooking classes, the hair salon chat, everything. The fabulous women in the novel will make you feel like long time friends. Wahala is a juicy novel that makes you feel as invested as your favorite soap opera. Mandatory beach reading for the summer of 2022.
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